LINCOLN — There’s a chance you don’t fully appreciate running back Jonathan Taylor’s first two seasons at Wisconsin.
He carried the ball 606 times for 4,171 yards. That would place him third on Nebraska’s or USC’s career chart right now. He hasn’t missed a game and only once carried the ball fewer than 10 times in a game. That was his collegiate debut, against Utah State, when nine carries netted him 87 yards.
If you’re inclined to shake your fist at a pro league for barring guys under a certain age, the NFL and Taylor run neck-and-neck with the NBA and Zion Williamson. Taylor is NFL-ready, at least as a two-down back. But league rules keep him out until after his junior season.
Should he fare a little worse in 2019, don’t hold it against him. The Wisconsin program Taylor joined in 2017 has shed many of the elite players who had the Badgers a single touchdown drive from making the College Football Playoff.
Five were selected in the 2018 NFL draft. Five or six more could be picked in the 2019 draft. That elite offensive line? Most of it has graduated. Ditto for terrific fullback Alec Ingold. So did four of the team’s top five tacklers, including All-America linebacker T.J. Edwards.
“There’s a lot of opportunity,” Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst told reporters last week during spring practice. “A lot of young guys getting work.”
Quarterback is no exception. The noodle-armed-but-relatively-clutch passer of the 2016 and 2017 seasons, Alex Hornibrook, transferred to Florida State in the offseason. Hornibrook regressed considerably as a junior — a concussion had something to do with it — and surprisingly parted ways with a program he’d led to multiple bowl wins.
One candidate to replace him is Jack Coan, who relieved Hornibrook last season and was so-so in doing it. UW also has some scrubs and true freshman early enrollee Graham Mertz, who lit up the All-American Bowl in January.
Sign up for Big Red Today news alerts
Get a daily Husker news roundup, recruiting updates and breaking news in your inbox.
The Wisconsin State Journal reported over the weekend that Coan “dominated” first-team reps in a recent scrimmage. But Mertz has moxie and big-time touch on deep passes. It hasn’t escaped Chryst’s attention.
“He’s approaching it the right way. He puts the time in studying it, learning it,” Chryst said. “Going out, he’s done some good and he’s not afraid to make a mistake. If you have that approach, then you can get better.”
Still, questions abound for the Badgers where they’ve been most dominant — on the offensive line and defensive front seven. The last time that was true, 2015, Wisconsin finished 10-3 with four wins by 10 or fewer points and seemed poised for a decline in 2016.
It didn’t happen. Perhaps, after an 8-5 season in 2018, it’s now in the cards.
The Badgers were soundly beaten by Michigan, Penn State and Northwestern and then were pummeled by rival Minnesota for the first time since 2003. Wisconsin was outmuscled, beaten at its own game. The peak of its season very well may have been a 41-24 win over Nebraska. After that game, the Badgers finished 4-4. Mediocrity.
Except for Taylor. He’s extraordinary — a 5-foot-11, 219-pound back who’s slippery in the trenches and possesses breakaway speed. Taylor’s 75- and 88-yard touchdown runs against NU are part of 470 yards and five touchdowns he alone has put on the Huskers. Only Taylor’s Wisconsin predecessors, Ron Dayne and Melvin Gordon, make his achievements look normal.
Chryst could lean on him even more in 2019 after he led the nation in carries last year.
“What will his workload be? Don’t really know right now,” Chryst said. “What does it have to be for the team? That’s what’s really impressive and what you appreciate about JT: He’ll do whatever he can.”
Taylor told Wisconsin beat reporters the Badgers’ goals are basic: win the West and win back the Paul Bunyan Axe from Minnesota. The Gophers are another young team, except they ended the season on a little roll.
Wisconsin, an overwhelming favorite to win the West in 2017 and 2018 — and a trendy dark horse pick to make the playoff last season — may not be at the top of voters’ minds in 2019. The West is wide, wide open.
“We’ve got to get back to what we play: Wisconsin football,” Taylor said.
He’ll have no problem doing that. Everyone else? We’ll see.
Other Big Ten notes
» In a modified scoring system, Purdue’s defense beat its offense 53-39 in the Boilermakers’ April 6 spring game. Two of Purdue’s top three quarterbacks, including presumptive starter Elijah Sindelar, sat out because of injuries. In their absence, Jack Plummer — no relation to Jake — took most of the No. 1 snaps.
“You’ve just got to roll with what you’ve got,” Plummer told the Indianapolis Star. “In football there’s going to be injuries, you can almost guarantee. I thought we progressed a little bit. Everyone’s getting better, everyone’s getting reps.”
Purdue coach Jeff Brohm said on the Big Ten Network the offense is far from polished.
“We’ve got to get guys in better shape, where they can step on the field and understand you’ve got to come out with everything you have and try to dominate and make plays,” Brohm said. “And I didn’t see that very much today.”
Brohm said Purdue has to be “tougher and more physical.”
“We have it in us, but we’ve got to get it out of our guys,” he said.
1 of 83
Nebraska's Adrian Martinez throws a third quarter touchdown pass to Jack Stoll.
Nebraska's Jack Stoll catches a third quarter touchdown pass as Wisconsin's D'Cota Dixon defends.
Nebraska's Cam Taylor breaks up a pass intended for Wisconsin's Kendric Pryor in the third quarter.
Wisconsin's Garrett Groshek carries the ball as Nebraska's Carlos Davis tackles him in the third quarter.
Nebraska's Adrian Martinez (2) celebrates with teammate Jack Stoll (86) and JD Spielman after Stoll caught a third quarter pass for a touchdown.
Nebraska's Adrian Martinez fumbles the ball out of bounds in the third quarter.
Nebraska's Maurice Washington catches a third quarter pass as Wisconsin's Ryan Connelly defends.
Nebraska's Adrian Martinez throws a third quarter touchdown pass to JD Spielman.
Wisconsin's Jonathan Taylor scores a third quarter touchdown against Nebraska.
Nebraska's Adrian Martinez walks off the field after a fumble against Wisconsin.
Nebraska's Adrian Martinez fumbles the ball against Wisconsin.
Nebraska and Wisconsin face off during the first quarter.
Nebraska's Adrian Martinez (2) delivers a pass during the second quarter.
Nebraska's Adrian Martinez (2) delivers a pass during the first quarter.
Wisconsin's Jake Ferguson (84) celebrates his touchdown catch with teammate Danny Davis (6) during the second quarter.
Nebraska's Adrian Martinez (2) carries the ball into Wisconsin's Zack Baun (56) and Tyler Johnson (59) during the XX quarter.
Wisconsin's Jake Ferguson (84) catches a touchdown pass over Nebraska's Dedrick Young II (5) and Alex Davis (22) during the second quarter.
Wisconsin's Alex Hornibrook delivers a pass during the first quarter.
Nebraska's Caleb Lightbourn tackles Wisconsin kick returner Aron Cruickshank in the second quarter.
A penalty is called on Nebraska's Lamar Jackson (21) alongside teammate Tre Neal (14) while defending Danny Davis (6) during the second quarter.
Nebraska's Dedrick Young II, left, tackles Wisconsin's Garrett Groshek in the second quarter. Groshek picked up the first down on the play.
Nebraska's Adrian Martinez is sacked by Wisconsin's Andrew Van Ginkel in the second quarter.
Nebraska's Kade Warner catches a first quarter pass as Wisconsin's Faion Hicks defends.
Nebraska's Stanley Morgan Jr makes a catch near Wisconsin's Scott Nelson.
Nebraska's Maurice Washington tries to get past Wisconsin's Ryan Connelly.
Nebraska's Adrian Martinez throws a pass against Wisconsin.
Wisconsin's Rafael Gaglianone connects on a field goal against Nebraska.
Nebraska's Barret Pickering celebrates after hitting a first half field goal against Wisconsin.
Nebraska's Barret Pickering hits a first half field goal against Wisconsin.
Nebraska's Barret Pickering hits a first half field goal against Wisconsin.
Nebraska's Kade Warner makes a catch against Wisconsin.
Nebraska's Dicaprio Bootle breaks up a pass intended for Wisconsin's Kendric Pryor.
Wisconsin's Jake Ferguson makes a catch near Nebraska's Eric Lee Jr.
Nebraska's Adrian Martinez warms up before the start of the game.
Nebraska Scott Frost, left, and Wisconsin Paul Chryst talk before the start of the game.
Nebraska head coach Scott Frost arrives for the game.
The Nebraska Cornhuskers football players and coaches arrive at Camp Randall Stadium prior to the game.
Nebraska's Tanner Farmer tours the field prior to the game.
Nebraska's head coach Scott Frost tours the field prior to the game.
Nebraska's head coach Scott Frost talks with Mick Stoltenberg, left, from the sideline with prior to the game.
Nebraska's Maurice Washington has a catch with a teammate prior to the game.
Nebraska's Mohamed Barry walks the field prior to the game.
Nebraska's quarterbacks coach Mario Verduzco walks the field prior to the game.
Assistant football strength coach Andrew Strop, left, and Nebraska football coach Scott Frost talk on the field just as the team arrived for the game.
Nebraska's Adrian Martinez walks the field after the team arrived for the game.
Nebraska's Devine Ozigbo catches a pass while warming up before the game.
Nebraska head coach Scott Frost walks to the locker room just as the team arrives for the game.
Nebraska's Luke Gifford, left, and Jerald Foster leave the field following the game.
Wisconsin's Dâ€™Cota Dixon, left, talks with Nebraska quarterback Adrian Martinez after the game.
Wisconsin's Dâ€™Cota Dixon breaks up a fourth quarter pass intended for Nebraska's Stanley Morgan Jr.
Nebraska head coach Scott Frost and quarterback Adrian Martinez talk during a replay in the third quarter.
Nebraska's Jack Stoll catches a third quarter touchdown pass as Wisconsin's D‚ÄôCota Dixon defends.
Nebraska's Adrian Martinez fumbles the ball in the third quarter.
Wisconsin's Jake Ferguson catches a second quarter pass as Nebraska's Dedrick Young II defends.
Nebraska's Luke Gifford sacks Wisconsin's Alex Hornibrook in the second quarter.
Wisconsin kicker Rafael Gaglianone gestures after scoring an extra point in the second quarter.
Nebraska's Deontai Williams stops Wisconsin's Kendric Pryor from scoring a second quarter touchdown.
Nebraska's Mohamed Barry (7), Aaron Williams (24) and Tre Neal stop Wisconsin's A.J. Taylor in the second quarter.
Nebraska's Collin Miller (31) talks with teammate Mick Stoltenberg in the second quarter.
Nebraska's Scott Frost walks the sideline in the first quarter.
Nebraska's fans cheer as the Huskers take the field for the start of the game.
Nebraska head coach Scott Frost and the team take the field for the start of the game.
Fans enter the stadium for the game.